Patterson and McClellan Exaggerate the Rebs

Wednesday, July 3, 1861

Union Col. Charles Stone made his northward-moving headquarters at Point of Rocks, Maryland, a small town along the banks of the Potomac, named for the rock formation on nearby Catoctin Mountain. He had successfully moved his Rockville Expedition troops from Poolesville, 15 miles south. His small command was to be absorbed by General Patterson. His northern-most regiments were opposite Harpers Ferry, at Sandy Hook.

While visiting Sandy Hook, he received a messenger from Sharpsburg who told him of the fight at Falling Waters the day before. Patterson had supposedly captured 500 Confederates and sustained only three battlefield deaths. This was, of course, wildly exaggerated. Patterson’s men didn’t even face 500 Rebels, let alone capture that many. The battle, said the messenger, was continuing on this day.1

Patterson, however, was not fighting today. In his report to Washington, he wrote that he occupied and passed through Martinsburg in “hot pursuit of the enemy,” which he put at 3,500 strong (ten times as many as he faced the day before and 1,500 more than Jackson’s entire command). Jackson’s force had camped two and a half miles south of Martinsburg and, on this day, moved farther south to Darkesville (near Inwood).2

The way Patterson made it sound was that Martinsburg was a thing of the past. He was in “hot pursuit” of an enemy retreating towards Winchester. This could lead the reader to believe that Patterson was also moving towards Winchester. That, like his exaggerated numbers and the wild rumors of capturing 500 Rebels, wasn’t exactly true.

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McClellan’s Had About Enough

Union General George McClellan was in charge of all Federal troops in western Virginia. He was in the process of moving his troops to the two passes defended by Confederate General Garnett when he received a dispatch from General Morris, commanding a large brigade in nearby Philippi.

The general plan was for McClellan to attack Rich Mountain (near Beverly) from Buckhannon, 25 miles west, while Morris feigned an attack on Laurel Hill (near Leedsville – modern day Elkins), 25 miles south. McClellan was very leery about his adversary’s strength, figuring Garnett to have 10,000 Confederates. McClellan supposed that there were 2,000 at Rich Mountain and 7,000 at Laurel Hill. Garnett had but 1,300 Rebels at Rich Mountain and a little over 3,000 at Laurel Hill. McClellan had gathered roughly 6,000 men at Buckhannon, opposite Rich Mountain, while Morris’s brigade numbered nearly 4,000.3

General Morris, who had several hundred more men than the foe before him, wrote to McClellan asking for reinforcements. Though his attack was only a feign, he was worried about the defense of Philippi prior to any attack. McClellan, who had several thousand more men than the foe before him, balked.

Despite his better judgement, McClellan order the Sixth Ohio “on temporary duty with you until the crisis has passed.” He thought that they could “be employed to more advantage at other points,” meaning his own. He made it clear that this was it: “this is all the re-enforcement I can now spare.”

McClellan also chastised Morris, explaining to him that “if four thousand (nearly) of our men, in a position selected and fortified in advance, with ample time to examine the ground carefully and provide against any possible plan of attack, are not enough to hold the place against any force these people can bring against it, I think we had better all go home at once.”

Of course, going home was out of the question, at least for McClellan. For Morris, however, it was looking like a good possibility.

He closed his letter with a warning, telling Morris that if he “cannot undertake the defense of Philippi with the force now under your control, I must find some one who will…. Do not ask for further re-enforcements. If you do, I shall take it as a request to be relieved from your command and to return to Indiana. I have spoken plainly. I speak officially.” 4

Later that night, McClellan wrote to his wife that Morris “was a timid old woman.” He had nothing nice to say about the other two Generals under him, either. Rosencrans was a “silly fussy goose” and Schleich “knows nothing.”5

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John C. Frémont and the Western Department

In Washington, the Western Department was created. It included Illinois and all the states and territories west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rockies. It would be under the command of Major-General John Charles Frémont. This also included Missouri, like Illinois, formerly under the Department of the Ohio.6

This took some control away from McClellan, but centralized the Western Theater of the early war into one department.

General Frémont was a celebrity. As a Mexican War hero and an explorer, he made quite a name for himself. In the 1840s, pennypress novels (the era’s equivalent to pulp fiction) fashioned him the “great pathfinder.” He was one of the first California Senators and, in 1856, he was the Republican Party’s first Presidential candidate, coming in second to Buchanan, while still beating Millard Fillmore.

Frémont, like General Lyon, commander of the Missouri forces (soon to be known as the Union Army of the West), was an abolitionist. With things heating up in Missouri, this Great Pathfinder may have been just what was needed to fully wrestle the state from the secessionists.



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, 120. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, 157. []
  3. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. He provides troop numbers here and there. These may not be perfect or exact, but they’re as close as we’ll get at this point. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p207-208. []
  5. Lee Vs. McClellan; The First Campaign by Clayton R. Newell. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p390. []
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